If the world ran like my sets do,” James Cameron admits, “everybody would be plant-based right now.” The famously demanding director, who created an entire universe with Avatar and its upcoming sequels, knows that he can’t exactly ask the world to adopt a vegan (or, his preferred term, “plant-based”) diet, the way he and his family did a few years ago. So he’ll settle on a smaller request: eat less meat. Period.
Teaming up with his old pal Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chinese actress Li Bingbing, Cameron is participating in a series of public-service announcements that encourage people to restrict their meat eating—not only because it’s better for you, but because it might save the world, too.
Like nearly everything else in Hollywood these days—and certainly the Avatar films—these P.S.A.s are aimed at both American and Chinese audiences. The wildlife conservation group WildAid and their climate campaign 5 To Do Today teamed up with the Chinese Nutrition Society to release a series of billboards in China in May; the P.S.A.s, which will feature other Chinese stars in that country, represent the next step in the campaign. In the English-language P.S.A., which will be distributed in the United States by Climate Nexus and My Plate, My Planet, Schwarzenegger explores a desolate, deforested world, where the climate has been wrecked by the livestock industry—and the tagline “less meat, less heat” reveals how to avoid this apocalyptic scenario. A behind-the-scenes preview of the P.S.A. can be seen below.
Both Cameron and Schwarzenegger are well-known in China, where Avatar made a sizable chunk of its $2 billion global gross; it will be a key market for an upcoming 3D re-release ofTerminator 2 as well. With these P.S.A.s, the man who taught China “I’ll be back” and “I’ll never let go” aims to export a different kind of western value, meant to counteract a rising appetite for meat and other imported American ideals. “There’s an enormous consumer base there. They’re looking toward the west for their value system, which is both a good thing and a bad thing,” he says, pointing to social progress as one of the good things. At the same time, “They’re picking up all our bad habits and applying them to a middle class that’s bigger than the entire population of America.”
The middle class Cameron and Schwarzenegger are trying to steer away from meat is the same one that Hollywood is now aggressively courting, with both successes—Avatar, Warcraft—and disappointments—Alice Through the Looking Glass—so far. As Cameron sees it, the P.S.A.s are just another place where Americans have to be “a little bit careful” about exporting their values to another country. “Hopefully, it doesn’t feel kind of like we’re telling them how they have to be,” he says. “The irony is they’ve had it right for centuries [eating a mostly plant-based diet], and they’re only changing now to be like us.”
When it comes to the Avatar sequels—the first of three is scheduled for release in December 2018—Cameron says he won’t face the problem that many Hollywood productions have, shoehorning in appeal to Chinese audiences. “I don’t need to cater to a Chinese market per se; I just need to keep doing what I’m doing,” he says, noting that China has three times as many movie screens now as it did when Avatar made $200 million there in 2010. (“Keep doing what I’m doing” is about as much information as Cameron will reveal about the sequels; a condition of our interview was that there be no Avatar questions, and even when he announced a surprise third Avatar sequel at CinemaCon in April, he only went as far as to call the films “a true epic saga.”)
The real challenge Cameron sees going forward isn’t from other Hollywood productions—it’s homegrown Chinese product. “They can make enough on a movie in their domestic release to justify doing world-class production values. I do think you’re going to see films competitive at a global scale coming out of China. That’s where the competition between the U.S. and China is going to get interesting.”
Though he’s deep in preparation for his Avatar sequels—to the point that he admits not having time to approve a master is the one thing standing in the way of a planned Blu-ray release of The Abyss—Cameron is clearly keeping a close eye on the movie industry he once considered leaving behind to focus on environmental conservation efforts. He may take nearly a decade between films and spend more time in the public eye talking about carbon emissions than the box office, but James Cameron the filmmaker is far from gone—and James Cameron the competitive filmmaker is right there with him.
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened in December and threatened to overtakeAvatar as the most popular movie in history, Cameron admits he paid attention—maybe because of some gentle competition between himself and George Lucas over the years. “George is always quick to tell me every time we meet if it was present valued [i.e. adjusted for inflation] that Star Wars would still beat Avatar, but all the secondary markets didn’t exist back then . . . ” he explains, laying out the highly technical back-and-forth between the two celebrated filmmakers. Cameron says you “reconcile yourself to the idea” that eventually some other film will beat Avatar’s global box-office record of $2.7 billion, and “what better than Star Wars?” After all, “before I was a filmmaker, I was a Star Wars fan by a couple of years.”
On the other hand? “I’m perfectly happy that it didn’t happen,” Cameron admits. And what better film to beat Avatar’s record is there, really, than Avatar 2?